To what point can international indifference continue in the face of such massacre? Unease within the Obama administration is growing. Uncertain about what to do after recently recognising the SNC (Syrian National Council), a body that assembles a more responsible opposition from an American viewpoint but which only represents ten political groups amongst many more which constitute the rebel front.
Understanding what to do is not easy. If the regime rests in the hands of one group (Alawite clans close to the Assad family), on the other hand opposition is divided into dozens of groups who compete against each other and hold profoundly different views of the future. There are multiple strategic visions amongst militants close to Al Qaeda and the secular who would like a State respectful of the different religious cultures constituting the Syrian terrain (Sunnites, Alawites, Druzes, Christians…). The confrontation/clash between these trends renders international political mediation, impossible so far, strenuous. This is affected in turn by diverging expectations of the main countries closely following the conflict’s evolution: the United States, Russia, Iran, Turkey and Saudi-Arabia.
Who delights in the armed conflict’s aggravation? Is the Financial Times correct in identifying the growing influence of Sunni Salafism as the most worrying political risk in the Syrian conundrum? Time is getting shorter, as the impression, of a situation more and more distant from a secure exit route is gaining ground. This could somehow avert an even bigger humanitarian crisis than the present one, which threatens to put the fragile balance of the Middle East at risk. The uncertain evolution of the situation in Egypt, permanent doubts on Iraq’s future, the uncertain internal situation in Libya, the unresolved Palestinian question along with Israel’s aggressive drive, and justified worries about Lebanon’s future do not bode well.
Intervening in Syria literally means putting one’s hand in a hornet’s nest. A few days ago, in the Washington Post, Kissinger wrote about the risk of a ‘Somalisation’ of Syria. Indeed, there are unresolved historical questions in the background. Firstly, the clash between Sunnites and Shiites, the two great Islamic denominations backed by Saudi Arabia (the former) and Iran (the latter). Then, there is the eternal Palestinian conflict to which Israel does not intend to find a fair and stable solution and the Kurdish question: Kurds – (not Arab but Sunnites by faith – divided between Syria, Iran, Iraq and Turkey, whose dream of an independent Kurdistan has not waned for decades. Lastly, the Iranian problem, in other words, the risk that in a relatively short time span, Tehran will obtain a nuclear weapon.
Behind these conflicts there is one undisputable fact: the Middle East has not assimilated the geopolitical and statist structure designed and imposed by the West in the post-World War I era. That Peace to end all Peace, as it was defined by an American historian, that gave birth to artificial nation states imposed by the British and French in the 1920’s. Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and the Gulf Arab states are countries where religious and ethnic groups have been forced to co-exist when they had lived in separate provinces during the Ottoman Empire, provinces that were directly connected to the Empire’s centre. This co-existence is now being torn apart more and more by growing tensions which express the historical failure of corrupt and authoritarian regimes that prevented any hypothetical case scenario of citizenship and welfare. Petrol, the great resource, has not been put to the service of a political economy open to societies’ needs as a whole but has stayed in the hands of a restricted groups who withhold enormous resources.
Today the Muslim-Arab world appears determined to question decades of status quo, which has allowed the abnormal growth of unemployment, particularly affecting its youth and extensive and unbearable inequalities. Though blurred, the demand for freedom and participation has become the other face of a pressing claim for greater economic equality. So, here we find old political and institutional formulas unable to provide answers to the demands for justice and transparency. Therefore, ancient tribal and clan identities, the only ones to have resisted within States that totally disregard social and civil rights are now re-flourishing. Is international public opinion aware of this, or is it blinded by the paralyzing fear of Islamic fundamentalism? Does it make sense to obsessively distrust the Muslim Brotherhood even though they are not coherent to the values and democratic practices of a West that has had so much weight configuring the contemporary reality of the Middle East? How can these prejudices be justified when tyrannical and corrupt regimes have been courted and assisted on an economic and military level for decades?
The reason why a decision on a plausible external intervention to freeze bloodshed in Syria is so distressing and complex is linked to the above questions. The point is that non-action, due to above-mentioned factors is as problematic as agreeing to intervene. In Syria there is no clear boundary between the ‘goodies’ and the ‘baddies’, there is only a war to the death between clans, tribal groups and political and religious factions. Today, no one can guarantee that in the future Sunnite rebels will behave substantially differently to current Alawite power holders. There could be an answer. It is a matter of initiating a large-scale negotiation phase. To sit the different actors down around a table without preconceptions or exclusions, the political and religious groups involved, including those countries that are playing a crucial role in the Syrian crisis. Without Iran and Russia as well as Turkey, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, a sustainable long-term solution does not exist. Only in this way will it be possible to initiate a period of respite between Sunnites and Shiites, key players in the conflict between Muslims in the Middle East. In this sense, the ball is in the superpower’s hands, the United States and its President.
Translated by Maria Elena Bottigliero